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Tuesday, 03 March 2020 08:53

Ten Sets of Questions for VicPol on the Pell Case

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Whatever the outcome of the upcoming High Court appeal by Cardinal Pell against his conviction on sex abuse charges, and despite the continuing social media tirades against the man and the undying hatred expressed by Pell haters against his small band of public defenders, there has been a recent, ever-so-subtle turn in elite opinion towards the possibility of an Alfred Dreyfus/Lindy Chamberlain scenario here.  That the man may have been wrongly convicted.  This is evidenced by some support for Pell’s innocence from unlikely quarters, and suggests hope against hope for justice.  Andrew Bolt has commented on it.  Yet, despite these tentative signs of hope, and the pleasant surprise, against the odds, that the High Court even decided to hear an appeal, there is still a massive job of work to be done in order to restore the Cardinal’s reputation. 

There is also an astonishingly long list of unanswered questions about the Pell case, including questions about the highly unorthodox investigation undertaken by Victoria Police into his possible commission of acts of sex abuse against minors.

Indeed, one of the institutions clearly hoping for a final dismissal of Pell’s claims of a miscarriage of justice will be Victoria Police.  Whatever one thinks of the Court of Appeal majority judgement – and there has been an utter evisceration of that judgement by lawyers, scholars, Catholic and non-Catholic journalists, researchers and bloggers, not to mention by Mr Justice Weinberg in his powerful dissenting judgement – the organisation perhaps most invested in “getting Pell” is, without doubt, VicPol.

VicPol might have a ritzy new building on Spencer Street nearing completion to warm the hearts of its central command.  But VicPol is also being taken apart on a regular basis by those appearing at the McMurdo Royal Commission into lawyer X, and those assisting the Commission, with the force’s reputation for clean law enforcement in absolute tatters.  The shocking revelations of the misadministration of justice, the payment of witnesses, using defence lawyers as informants will not only put at risk potentially dozens of criminal convictions against drug barons and the like.  It will cast a shadow over Victoria’s police force for decades to come and will require a massive hosing out of the stables for the putrid stench to dissipate.

Ashton’s Circus indeed.

Compared to Lawyer X, the Pell case, perhaps, doesn’t raise quite the same set of concerns.  The mainstream media, with its embedded progressivism and animus against the Catholic Church, has simply gone on strike in relation to investigating how an innocent man came to be hounded in the absence of a crime, then denied justice, and what his appalling conviction means for justice in Australia, for example in relation to reversing the onus of proof in cases of “he said/she said” sexual abuse.  Australia’s system of justice has been placed under the microscope, the country’s reputation for a fair go shot down in the manic desire of so many players to hold the Catholic Church leadership to account for crimes real and imagined.

Despite this, VicPol’s treatment of George Pell has been nothing short of a disgrace, and will cause a stain on VicPol’s reputation for clean law enforcement just as long as the Lawyer X stench lasts.

Those minded to place VicPol under the microscope over the pursuit of George Pell might like to ask the Media Unit at Spencer Street if VicPol’s senior officers have answers to the following questions:


VicPol’s Personal Animosity towards George Pell

It is an open secret that there was no love lost between senior Victorian politicians and VicPol and the Catholic Church, in particular George Pell.  A 2012-23 Victorian parliamentary inquiry started it all.  The inquiry was instigated on the back of a report by a Ballarat police officer, later hugely discredited – although the discrediting inquiry known as Operation Plangere was kept secret by VicPol – that 43 suicides in Ballarat had resulted directly from clerical abuse.  Operation Plangere found the initial report, which caused such consternation in the halls of power, to have been wildly exaggerated. 

According to one report:

Rather than scores of people committing suicide due to church-related sex abuse, Operation Plangere could substantiate only one firm case.

Then deputy commissioner Graham Ashton agreed.  But the Parliamentary inquiry proceeded nonetheless, and arguably led fairly directly to the get Pell operation crafted by VicPol and friends. 

According to legal journalist John Ferguson:

The claims rocked the church and were instrumental in the formation of the state parliamentary inquiry into sex abuse, which ultimately played a major role in Pell’s downfall. It was during that inquiry that police set up the operation to investigate whether there were abuse allegations against Pell that could be prosecuted.

The Parliamentary inquiry became a lightning rod for police and political animus against the Catholic Church in Victoria, with conflicting accounts of the actions by both Church and State in response to sex abuse cases.

Is it true that there was deep personal animosity towards George Pell from the senior ranks of VicPol stemming from the Catholic Archdiocese’s submissions to the Victorian parliamentary Inquiry of 2012-13, the Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations?  Who within VicPol decided to instigate Operation Tethering?  Was there any evidence at the time Tethering was instigated that Cardinal Pell had had complaints against him raised?  What if any, precedents were used to justify the commencement of Operation Tethering? 


VicPol’s Record in Investigating Matters of Sex Abuse

In the 1990s and perhaps earlier, VicPol was quite content to allow the Catholic Church to investigate its own allegations of abuse.  Cardinal Pell’s 1996 Melbourne Response was seen by all as a mighty step forward, and this perhaps embarrassed the Police.

Perhaps this explains the seeming hatred Ashton had for Pell’s Church, with evidence presented to the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry which trashed Ashton’s own evidence:

A VICTORIAN police deputy commissioner [Graham Ashton, now chief commissioner"] and the force have been accused of false and misleading evidence to the state's child sex abuse inquiry ... Peter O'Callaghan, QC, independent commissioner in charge of the Catholic Church's Melbourne-based complaints system [the Melbourne Response"], has ... provided evidence that contradicts the most damaging claim by Mr Ashton and the force that the church failed to report a single case of abuse to police... Mr Ashton claimed in his evidence to the inquiry that police had not "had a single referral of a child sexual abuse allegation by the Catholic Church". This assertion is repeated in the police submission to the inquiry. However, these allegations, which have been among the defining evidence of the inquiry, are wrong, according to Mr O'Callaghan's submission.... Mr O'Callaghan's response in reply to Mr Ashton and the police submission also contains five examples from his files in which he says complainants reported abuse at the encouragement of or with his direct assistance. Mr O'Callaghan also reveals that, of the 304 complaints made to him to June 30 last year, 97 have been reported to police, 115 related to offenders who were already dead at the time of the complaint, nine were for offenders who were overseas and 76 complainants were encouraged by him to go to police...

You attack VicPol at your peril, it seems.  Making VicPol seem stupid is relatively straightforward.  Telling everyone they are liars might invite revenge.  This might well explain the truly extraordinary aspects of VicPol’s investigation of George Pell, outlined below.

Is it the case that VicPol’s pursuit of the Catholic Church over responses to child abuse allegations was partly motivated by its desire to deflect criticism of its own record of systemic failure in responding to allegations of child sex abuse from the 1970s to the 1990s?  Did VicPol repeatedly advise the Archdiocese of Melbourne in the 1990s to handle complaints itself rather than referring them to the Police?


The Cost of Operation Tethering

Operation Tethering, the Get Pell squad, which emerged as part of the Sano Taskforce, is perhaps unprecedented in Australian criminal justice. 

What was the overall cost to Victorian taxpayers of Operation Tethering?  Is it the case that once Operation Tethering was implemented, VicPol was so invested in securing a conviction against George Pell that it ceased being interested in questioning seriously the story of the complainant Witness J?  What would have been the likely political cost of not securing a conviction, or at least of bringing the matter to trial, given the enormous resources brought to bear on the investigation of a person who had been, at the time the investigation was commenced, accused of nothing?    Who within VicPol gave the authorisation to ignore the DPP’s advice?  How many detectives were assigned to Operation Tethering?  For how long?


The Office Of Public Prosecutions’ Unexplained Change of Heart

Unusually, the case against Pell was prepared by the Police and not the OPP.

What were the OPP’s reasons for not wishing to pursue the Pell case initially?  Why was the OPP’s advice ignored by VicPol, twice?  When and why did the OPP come on board and decide to proceed with the case after all?  What changed the OPP’s mind in relation to the Pell allegations?


Advertising for Complainants Against Pell

One of the more astonishing elements of the Pell investigation was the advertising of the investigation in December 2015 and the plea for other complainants or witnesses to come forward.

Why did VicPol advertise in the media for complainants to come forward to give evidence against George Pell?  Was there a precedent for this approach in Victoria or elsewhere in Australia?  Was VicPol aware of the trawling methodology fashionable in the 1990s in the United Kingdom and on what basis was it thought by VicPol that such an approach was appropriate for the pursuit of George Pell?  Is VicPol aware of evidence aired in the UK that inducements to potential complainants are likely to lead to unreliable evidence, and to complaints from accusers with a record of making false accusations?

Has there been any discussion within VicPol of the unravelling of the Carl Beech allegations in the UK and of the lessons for Victorian policing of the permanent stain cast on Operation Midland, which succumbed to the same MeTooist “believe the victim” approach that applied in the Pell case?  Have the lessons of Operation Midland caused any reflection, even a rethink, by VicPol in relation to its single minded pursuit of George Pell?  Does VicPol agree with Sir Richard Henriques who in his report on Operation Midland identified the critical mistake as police gullibly treating “complainants” as “victims”?


The Case of “Billy Doe” in Philadelphia

The attempt by one Danny Alexander, aka Billy Doe, to extort money from the Church in the USA over fabricated sex abuse allegations, initially reported by Rolling Stone magazine in 2011 and subsequently revealed to be a hoax by Newsweek, provided some uncanny similarities with Witness J’s allegations, in specific details.  It has been argued that the Philadelphia case may have provided some ideas to Witness J and/or his lawyer and/or his Police handlers, at the time struggling to recall when, where and how the alleged offences actually occurred.

Was anyone with VicPol aware of the case in Philadelphia in the United States of “Billy Doe” and his allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic clergy, subsequently found to have been fabricated?  Was there any communication about Billy Doe between VicPol and the Complainant, Witness J, his lawyer or the Broken Rites organisation, in relation to certain details of the Billy Doe allegations?


Coaching Witnesses and Witness J’s Alleged Change of Heart After the Mistrial

Witness J, whose real name, broadly known among those close to the Pell case including this writer, cannot be stated in public, was clearly central to the Police case against Pell.  Without Witness J, the case goes nowhere.  Yet Witness J is highly problematic.  His story changed over time, in important ways.  His book length character reference from Louise Milligan has been discredited by claims of a less than exemplary life, and there is even the suggestion that he wished to withdraw his complaint after the first Pell trial.  The way his story changed over time, as VicPol received more and more information from a variety of sources, including George Pell himself, suggests a developing narrative in which the facts are made to fit the theory, not the reverse.  VicPol was there all the way.

Can the public be assured that VicPol case managers involved in the Pell investigation were fully cognisant of the prohibition against coaching witnesses during the long process of fleshing out Witness J’s complaint ahead of the trial?  The process commenced with his initial statements to police in 2015 and ended with his appearance at trial in 2018, a process that included many significant changes to his story, including dates, times, places and myriad details related to the allegations?  Did the now widely known VicPol practice of making payments to witnesses, uncovered in relation to the Lawyer X affair and in particular in relation to VicPol’s case against Paul Dale, continue during the period of Operation Tethering?

Can VicPol confirm the suggestion that Witness J (the Kid) wished no longer to pursue his complaint against Cardinal Pell after the first (mis)trial in 2018 ended without a verdict?  Was this alleged change of heart by Witness J communicated to the Victorian OPP?  Were any reasons given by Witness J for his alleged change of heart?  Did VicPol officers at this point doubt the veracity of the Kid’s original story, or did police assume he had simply had enough of a difficult process?  Were there any incentives offered for Witness J to ensure that he did not withdraw his complaint and to proceed to have his evidence accepted in the subsequent second trial?  If so, what were these incentives?  (It is noted that Witness J was not required to give fresh evidence or be cross examined in the second trial, the one in which George Pell was found guilty by a jury).


VicPol and Broken Rites

Broken Rites assists and supports victims of sexual abuse and offers to help write victims’ statements, with the promise of cash recompense from the Catholic Church as an incentive for complainants to come forward.  Such an offer was allegedly made to the Pell complainant, career criminal Phil Scott, by Broken Rites in 2002.  Scott’s complaint was later dismissed following an investigation by the late Alec Southwell QC.  Broken Rites also provides a steady stream of litigation work for sex abuse lawyers like Vivian Waller.

Is it true that officers of VicPol approached the Broken Rites organisation, with a guarantee of prosecuting George Pell if it was able to produce a complainant?  If so, who within VicPol made such an approach, and who authorised it? 


Leak Inquiry

It is well known that the VicPol investigation of allegations against George Pell was quite deliberately and strategically leaked to the Herald Sun journalist Lucie Morris Marr in February 2016.  Cardinal Pell himself complained to VicPol over this leak, seemingly designed to cause embarrassment and dent his credibility at a sensitive time during the Royal Commission into Sex Abuse.

Andrew Bolt said at the time of the leak:

This police leak is highly suspicious and clearly meant to destroy Cardinal Pell.

Damning phrases in the leaked information like “multiple offences” were designed pure and simple to create the image of a serial offender, in the way that Milligan’s suspiciously timed book also did.  So-called “tendency evidence”.  A “source close to the investigation” suggested grooming.  More pieces in the emerging jigsaw.

Bolt continued:

How did this news of the police investigation get leaked? Which police briefed the reporters? Why? Why now, before the investigation's preliminary report has even been approved by senior police? Is this not against police regulations? Against all principles of justice? And why was this leaked even before police contacted Pell to inform him of these serious claims? This is utterly disgraceful. Pell has been given not even the slightest detail of any of the claims against him bar one - no who, where, when - and cannot defend himself other than to deny any wrongdoing. This stinks of a disgusting ambush.

Equally well known to the public is VicPol’s long history of leaking, including in relation to Lawyer X and the ongoing McMurdo Royal Commission.

Did VicPol undertake an investigation into who within its organisation leaked its investigation of Cardinal Pell?  Was a leak inquiry undertaken, and if not, who decided not to pursue the leak?  What was the outcome of such an inquiry and was anyone within VicPol disciplined over it?


Sharing of Information between VicPol and Selected Journalists 

Louise Milligan and Lucie Morris Marr each did well out of the Pell case.  As of today, as they tweet their way into the sunset, they still have a clear interest in seeing Pell remain gaoled and damned.  Pell simply cannot be exonerated.  They are not letting go of their career boosting involvements.  We know for a fact that Morris Marr was the beneficiary of a leak from VicPol.  We are intrigued as to Milligan’s sources and the use to which VicPol may have put Milligan’s book.

What, if any, information has VicPol provided to the ABC and to its journalist Louise Milligan in particular, in relation to the Pell case, and what, if any, information has Louise Milligan provided to VicPol?  In view of the passage of two years from the time of Witness J’s initial complaint to VicPol, was the eventual timing of the announcement of charges against Pell in any way related to the publication of Louise Milligan’s book, Cardinal, which detailed the allegations a number of complainants which became part of VicPol’s subsequent charges?  Is VicPol willing to release any correspondence (emails, etc) with journalists who have written newspaper articles and books about the Pell case?

So, there are ten sets of questions, the answers to which would unlock much of the backstory to VicPol’s pursuit of George Pell.  For a pursuit it was – clearly articulated within VicPol, given a name – Operation Tethering – provided with substantial resources, reliant on highly dubious UK trawling practices imported to Australia, leaked to selected, in-favour journalists, leading to charges not initially accepted by the OPP, and responsible for the trial and gaoling of an innocent man and the trashing forever of his reputation.  And the whole charade has conveniently covered up VicPol’s own insipid and ineffective efforts to respond to historical accusations of sex abuse, by producing a convenient scapegoat who, even better still, could be found to be accused himself of such crimes.

The High Court appeal case is critical for Australian justice, for a number of reasons.  One is that, if Pell is exonerated, then it will be permissible, indeed required, for the questions canvassed above to be aired out in the broad light of day, rather than in hushed tones among organisations fearful of being sued or of being pilloried by the many individuals and institutions who demanded the Pell scalp and who will not easily give it up.  Remember that, in all likelihood, the Pell Wars are still in their relative infancy, and that an exoneration from Canberra will merely close off some options for the Pell haters while others are still well and truly open.  Legal remedies for the Cardinal are important, clearly, but just as important is the considerable salvage operation required for his reputation.

The costs of raising these questions is considerable, and this explains why so few are raising them, whether they be timid Catholic bishops caught like rabbits in the headlights or mute Victorian politicians seemingly unalive to the scandal that is the Pell case.  Undoubtedly the prime concern for those who harbour perfectly reasonable question over a miscarriage of justice but who hesitate to voice them is the fear of being seen by the loud voices in the public square who would claim, without the slightest evidence whatsoever, that merely voicing questions over the justice meted out to someone accused of sex abuse will automatically cause harm to individual victims of sex abuse or to victims-as-a-class.  “Victims-as-a-class” is now a real thing, apparently, and wont to feel offence.  Is there even the remotest evidence for this proposition?  What is this evidence?  But it is clear that, like so many other propositions of the offended victim class, this parry has been singularly effective in silencing those who might otherwise question the dictates of the MeToo megaphone class.

Oh yes.  This will be a long battle, and courage is needed to ask publicly the questions that many of us have already been asking privately.  Because we all know what VicPol does to those who cross it.  We know what they did to an innocent prelate.


Paul Collits

Paul Collits is a freelance writer and independent researcher who lives in Lismore New South Wales.  
He has worked in government, industry and the university sector, and has taught at tertiary level in three different disciplines - politics, geography and planning and business studies.  He spent over 25 years working in economic development and has published widely in Australian and international peer reviewed and other journals.  He has been a keynote speaker internationally on topics such as rural development, regional policy, entrepreneurship and innovation.  Much of his academic writing is available at
His recent writings on ideology, conservatism, politics, religion, culture, education and police corruption have been published in such journals as Quadrant, News Weekly and The Spectator Australia.
He has BA Hons and MA degrees in political science from the Australian National University and a PhD in geography and planning from the University of New England.  He currently has an adjunct Associate Professor position at a New Zealand Polytechnic.